This month’s feature interview is with UK producer Mark Archer who began with trail-blazing UK techno outfit Nexus 21, worked with the Belleville Three, created rave heroes Altern-8, and went on to record as Xen Mantra, Slo Moshun and a host of other pseudonyms.
Mark Archer is a singularly interesting character in the UK history of house in that he was influential in three distinct music genres – UK techno, rave and house – yet isn’t actually particularly well known. He managed to make a series of distinct musical turns and remain successful each time. For several years he kept his finger firmly on the underground pulse even as dance music rushed through one of its most creative and ever-morphing periods.
Archer was briefly a member of Bizarre Inc before launching Nexus 21 with Chris Peat. They made a series of influential UK techno records before achieving huge crossover success with their rave band Altern 8. Archer then went on to record as Xen Mantra and Slo Moshun, playing an influential role in developing the UK take on US house music through the early 90s.
We thought it would be interesting to talk to Mark about his musical journey and so we began with his first musical love, electro.
Attack Magazine: So you were into electro and breakdancing in the early/mid 80s…
Mark Archer: Totally. You listen to say ‘Infiltrate 202’ and ‘Activ-8’ they both had loops sampled off early electro compilations, even the Nexus 21 stuff had those influences in there too. To be honest the electro scene was what started me making music. I didn’t have a plan to make tracks but I’d heard a lot of the production techniques on the electro tracks and thought how do they do that? So I got myself a Casio SK1 sampling keyboard just to try and emulate them, even though it wasn’t the same quality gear they were using.
‘We Come To Rock’ by The Imperial Brothers off [Street Sounds] Electro 3 has got like a little cough at the end that goes up and down through the track and I sampled it and played it up and down the keyboard and was like no way, that’s how they do it! So I just kind of fell into making records after that.
So you sampled old electro records for your first techno productions?
Yeah, then I started buying all those early Detroit tracks, Keynotes, Reece and Santonio, Rythim is Rythim. I was really into the Chicago and acid stuff but techno really struck a chord with me, the emotiveness, all the pads, just like electro, I loved the space-age feel of it. They were different to Chicago stuff, they had a different futuristic sound which electro had and I was living in a little village in the middle of nowhere, no internet, no mates who were into the same things as me, no word of mouth, so I didn’t know what the equipment they used. So I just sampled drum sounds to try and get that authentic Detroit feel. When I listen back to it I think I failed miserably but a lot of people think it sounds very Detroit so I’m happy with that.
But then your music became very popular with your Detroit heroes…
Well, it was like they’d hear UK influences from what we were doing. obviously we were influenced by them and slightly later on influenced by the whole Sheffield thing so we were adding bleepy elements to our tracks and then Detroit would hear that influence and then you’d get things like ‘Sonar’ by Shake which was like an out-and-out bleep tune. So I think influences were firing back and forward from UK to the states and back again, and then onto Belgium and Italy… I think the UK took on more influences than everyone else which is why it was such a melting pot but as Nexus 21 were trying to stay very Detroit sounding.
We were on Blue Chip from Stafford, a small label from like 88 to 89 and then they ceased trading and that could have been the end of my career. But I had a chance meeting with Neil Rushton in a little club. This was right at the beginning of 1990 and they were just about to launch Network Records, and we were like where’d you want us to sign! Within two or three months they’d got Detroit remixes of ‘(Still) Life Keeps Moving’, one of the tracks from the first Nexus 21 and flown us over to Detroit to meet Derrick, Kevin and Juan and work in the KMS studio. Suddenly we were meeting and working in the studio with our heroes – it was quite a lot to take in!
So what did you get up to in Detroit?
We got a few tracks together at home in Stafford, just really basic drums and basslines, chords and stuff, took Atari disks and samples over to Detroit, got into the KMS studios and started working with Kevin. Anthony Shakir came in to help mix the tracks down and wanted to sound exactly like it was from Detroit so Mark Kinchen came and did loads of percussion on the different tunes to give it that authentic Detroit feel.
What do you think of that music now?
The early Detroit techno is really timeless, just like a lot of the electro. You listen back to it and it could have been made last week. I think there was only one track that made it out at the time from those sessions which was a track called ‘Together’ that came out on the B-side of the ‘Self Hypnosis’ remix and then last year we finally managed to get the rest of the tracks from those sessions out on Vinyl on Network records so it was really nice for them to be out and the reception was fantastic.
So from the Detroit-influenced techno of Nexus 21, you then launched rave outfit Altern-8…
So when we signed to Network, they said apart from the Nexus 21 album have you got any other tracks on DAT that we can release and we gave them the C&M connection release which was an Italian piano thing. And then we had this DAT with 9 tracks we’d just recorded. I’d been going to quite a few raves and clubs by that point so there were a lot more influences than I was hearing rather than just sitting at home and listening to records so they were totally different to the Nexus 21 material… and we don’t want to spoil the purist image so we put it out under a different name.
And then things took off fairly quickly right?
Well, the first Altern 8 release [the 8 track ‘Overload’ EP] paved the way for the second [‘Infiltrate 202]. A lot of DJs knew of the first one, it was strictly a DJ record, so they were looking out for a follow-up and again, and when ‘Infiltrate’ blew up on promo it kind of changed everything. It was the one that crept into the top 40, was played at all the big raves, and we started doing PAs to promote it and off the back of it came ‘Activ-8’ and ‘E-Vapour-8’.
So then comes the third Mark Archer period where you take the audio vocabulary of rave, hardcore and Detroit and put it together with US house beats.
Yeah, so the rave scene in 89/90, you could play a wide range of stuff at a rave, anything from Downbeat Soul II Soul tempo type stuff to Belgian techno, whereas by ’93 it was proto-jungle and it had become one kind of music all night. After the Altern 8 thing, the music in the hardcore scene was getting incredibly sped up, lots of ‘chipmunk’ vocals and as the equipment was going down in price lots more people were getting hold of it to make music – but the musicality wasn’t there. And so I got into the American house sound at that point and that’s when I started doing Xen Mantra and Slo Moshun.
The music you were making at that time, Xen Mantra, Ed ‘Chunk’ Rodriguez, Ramone ‘LL’ Ropiak, Slo Moshun, it was an interesting mix of Detroit techno, rave and US house…
A lot of that comes back to me not being a musician. So I could knock together a bass line or whatever but playing nice chords and things not so much, so I tend to use stab samples or chopped chords, so its got that kind of feel of the early Detroit stuff because of the chords that I was using. Even in that US type stuff I still put a little bit of a thin break beat behind it so it still has that kind of feel.
They were quite trailblazing at the time right?
Yeah, it turned out that a lot of the early releases on Danny Taurus’ and my Dansa label were staples on London pirates, before the whole speed garage thing, part of the fledgling Sunday Scene, based around the US garage sound. So when we put the Dansa stuff out again, we’ve heard that people used to hammer them on pirate radio in London but we never knew at the time.
The first Dansa release was your ‘Bells of New York’…
Yeah, that was late 93 when we got it out on promo and Network put it out on their label 6X6, which in early 94.
We’d styled it on the tribal sound that was round at the time with X-press 2 ‘London Xpress; and DJ Duke Blow Your Whistle. So we wanted to make long tunes with really big build ups and tribal beats. And I’d also been messing around with a hip hop bit and Danny heard it and was like it would be great if we could slot that in the track somehow. So I moved it a few minutes down the arrangement window and started work on the house tune and then it came back into view and we were like OK, how we gonna do this! It’s quite easy now but at the time on Cubase version 2 you had to go into master tempo screen and tell it what speed you wanted it, like type the bar in and to what bar you wanted it to go to, and then do another one for each bpm, so we had this mad screen with all these tempo changes on it just to get it to that hip hop beat for that one minute – and then do it all again to speed it back up again! K Klass said to me recently that their remix of Bobby Brown has got that hip hop bit in the middle because of ‘Bells of New York’.
And you made a few big tunes as Xen Mantra too…
At the time there was this split in the scene between hardcore, US garage and progressive house. I started going to [seminal UK club night] Golden in Stoke and they were playing a lot of new progressive and US house and I decided to make a tune that mentioned Golden – so I called the track ‘Golden Delicious’ and the EP was the ‘Midas’ EP – Midas touch turns things to gold! Then I got a dub plate cut and gave it to Pete Bromley who was the resident DJ there, he played that for a few weeks. We got him to do a remix and he was hammering it as his last tune and it went on to sell really well for a first release. And no one knew it was me, even to the point that DJ mag did a piece about it and said that it was Sure Is Pure!
So through all these different stylistic changes, what do you think all your releases have in common?
I’ve always tried to just make stuff straight for the dance floor, whether its been Nexus 21, Altern 8, Xen Mantra or even the Trackman techno-y stuff there’s always a slight Detroit influence because that was the first really big sound that I started to properly produce and it always kind of harks back to that. But really, it is always just something squarely aimed at the dance floor.
The Mark Archer and Dansa back catalogue are available on Bandcamp.
‘The Man Behind The Mask’ is Mark Archer’s story of his music career and is available via GoodReads.